Shortly after Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos unveiled a futuristic drone—designed to fly packages directly to your doorstep in 30 minutes—the reaction has been swift and furious on social media. Just a day after airing of the research project, known as Amazon Prime Air, on CBS' "60 Minutes," Twitter is full of drone chatter.
Comments range from "creepy" to "Just for the record, I'm 100 percent not on board with Amazon flying my packages in on drones like they're my sponsor in the goddamn 'Hunger Games,'" said another Tweeter. A common reaction: What the heck!?
But for all the passion, suspicion and ethical questions about unmanned aircraft and privacy, researchers have been working with drones in many fields—beyond retail—for years. Consumers already have been exposed to the iRobot vacuum cleaner. A more serious application has been unmanned aircraft used in modern warfare.
Now with the U.S. national airspace opening to unmanned aircraft by 2015, many small- to mid-sized manufacturers are preparing for more nonmilitary customers. They're creating smaller, affordable models for surveillance and public-safety use.
Click ahead to explore emerging trends in drones, robotic warfare and beyond. "We're just scratching the surface of this," P.W. Singer, author of "Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century," told CNBC last year.
By CNBC's Heesun Wee. Follow her on Twitter @heesunwee
Posted 2 Dec. 2013
(This slideshow originally was posted on 29 May 2012)
To grasp how robotics is transforming warfare alone, consider that roughly 7,500 unmanned aircraft were operating among U.S. forces in 2012, compared with only a handful a decade ago. Sometimes referred to as drones, the market for unmanned aircraft was forecast to grow into an $89 billion global industry in the next 10 years, according to the Teal Group, an aerospace and defense consultancy.
"The small, unmanned ground vehicle has become the infantryman's Swiss army knife—something you don't want to be without," said Joe Dyer, chief strategy officer at iRobot, a leading maker of robotics whose products range from the household favorite Roomba vacuum cleaner to the now iconic PackBot, which has been used extensively in combat to dispose of bombs. War robots proliferated in Iraq and Afghanistan, including PackBot, pictured. Now more civilian applications are emerging.
And robotics is on the cusp of remaking many private-sector industries from agriculture to medicine. Imagine unmanned aerial vehicles monitoring crops and the environment; robots dropped onto nuclear plants to investigate disasters; medical robots, or medbots, delivering medicine.
Initially designed for rescuing wounded personnel, medical robots will find a wounded soldier after receiving an alert. Connected through video, the robot’s human controller assesses and treats the solider with the robot’s onboard medical system including a stethoscope, liquid bandages and automatic syringes.
Early medical robots have advanced to include elaborate extraction and search-and-rescue functions for first responders. An example is the Bear, manufactured by Cambridge, Mass.-based Vecna Technologies. Bear features a wheeled platform and arms capable of lifting more than 500 pounds including injured humans. It’s also immune to nuclear, biological and chemical agents.
Medbot technology in some cases is being expanded into portable medical treatment centers, sometimes called trauma pods. Menlo Park, Calif.- based SRI International, for example, is developing a trauma pod-robot system that includes scouting an injured soldier. Using joints, or mechanical arm-like devices, the robot will load the soldier onto a wheeled mobile unit and move to safety. The trauma pod-robot will be able to administer oxygen and offer diagnostics to remote doctors, who might even perform remote surgery.
Beyond the battlefield, medbots’ potential to deliver health care to civilians is enormous. Looking ahead, robots could remind patients to take medications and transmit remote diagnoses and checkups to doctors—all from the comfort of patients’ homes.
Medbots could also allow hospitals to maintain a virtual presence with remote patients. “One of the most exciting roles for robots will be to enable us to stay at home longer,” said Dyer of iRobot, which is actively exploring the use of robots in hospitals.
Robots for war at sea is another burgeoning field. Sometimes called navybots or unmanned underwater vehicles, they can search for sea mines, among other tasks. The government’s Cormorant may be among the most unique designs.
The Cormorant would be unmanned, and be both launched and recovered while the submarine stays hidden underwater, Singer notes in “Wired for War.”
Maritime robots already are used in the private sector. iRobot’s Seaglider, pictured, performs physical, chemical and biological oceanography, marine environmental monitoring and a variety of other subsurface missions. The Seaglider was used to survey the Gulf of Mexico after the In February 2012, Congress passed a law that will open the national airspace to unmanned aerial vehicles by 2015. The rules will allow public safety agencies, including local police, to operate unmanned aircraft, which weigh just a few pounds.
Singer estimates roughly 21,000 new customers will emerge once the airspace opens. In the U.S. alone, about 50 companies, universities and government agencies are developing, producing or operating some 155 unmanned aircraft designs, ranging from small handheld models to full-sized airplanes, according to the FAA.
Anticipating the potential for civilian uses, AeroVironment in 2011 unveiled the Qube, a portable unmanned aircraft system for police and other first responders. The Qube can fit in a car trunk and be unpacked and assembled in five minutes or less—a fraction of the time and cost it would take to order a manned aircraft. Potential applications include monitoring a hostage situation and conducting a rescue search operation in the wilderness. “It offers an instant, aerial view,” said Steven Gitlin, vice president of AeroVironment, based in Monrovia, Calif.
The Qube could be used by government agencies to monitor various pipelines such as those for water and oil and natural gas, and the surveillance of hazardous materials. The U.S. government already is using the Raven, originally created for military applications, to monitor wildlife and soil erosion.
Of course, advanced robotics raise larger, ethical questions about surveillance, privacy and basically unleashing technology that's potentially irreversible. What happens as "do it yourself" robotic kits proliferate, possibly among terrorists? Can humans ultimately contain and control unmanned technologies? "'We are already in 'A Brave New World,' but just don't want to admit it,' " a military consultant tells Singer in "Wired for War."
Unmanned aircraft are controlled by drone pilots, who work the same hours as ground soldiers but thousands of miles away from the conflict. But unlike battlefield soldiers, drone soldiers finish their day, walk out of their cubicles and back into real life, as Singer explores in “Wired for War.”
The military’s ethos historically has been defined by team cohesion. But what happens to morale among a virtual band of brothers in a chat room? Though not physically in the battle space, emerging evidence among drone pilots shows they experience combat-related stress just like service people on the ground. “Those in uniform are not treating it like a video game. That’s a misnomer,” Singer said at a presentation in February at the Brookings Institution, where he’s also a fellow.
The Air Force is grappling with how to handle the emergence of drones and telewarfare, says Col. Hernando Ortega, surgeon for the Air Force Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency. He made the comments during the February 2012 session. “There’s a cultural change.”